Tuesday, 14 June 2011

The 'Black Swan' effect: a visit to Covent Garden's Royal Opera House

The release of the film, 'Black Swan', earlier this year has a lot to answer for.  As one slightly irrate ballerina complained in a recent Sunday newspaper magazine, it did little to portray professional ballet dancers as more than psychotic hysterics.  It also robbed the truly fantastic Jennifer Lawrence of the Oscar for Best Actress, which she thoroughly deserved for the perfect 'Winter's Bone'.  Worst of all I could not bear to look at the ballet pumps perpetually worn upon my own feet without feeling utterly creeped out and expecting feathers to start bursting through my legs at any minute.  On the other, more positive, hand, the film has also inspired more of the general public to go to the ballet.  Although the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden apparently became fed up of the endless calls by people keen to book tickets for Natalie Portman's 'Swan Lake'.  (It was only a made-up story, people.)

For fans of opera London boasts two principal opera companies, of which the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, is one, along with the English National Opera, based at the London Coliseum on St Martin's Lane.  However the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden is possibly better known for being the city's home of ballet.  Originally built in the nineteenth century, the current ROH is the third building to occupy the site, and was heavily rebuilt, refurbished and modernised in the 1990s.   
Entering by the columned entrance you pass into vast Paul Hamlyn Hall with its huge barrel roof, all metal and glass and plush carpets.  You can even enjoy an pre- or post-show meal or drink in this lovely, light, yet enormous, space.  Alternatively in the interval you can enjoy a restorative plate of smoked salmon sandwiches and a cold glass of champagne in the Amphitheatre Bar at the top of the building, reached by a very long, high escalator.  A popular interval haunt, the bar opens also onto a refreshing terrace, with wonderful views over the centre of the city.
The main auditorium is lined with red velvet seats and opulent boxes for the wealthiest of ballet or opera fans.  But if you're a student, or not sure you want to commit a lot of cash to a trip to the ballet, or just a tiny bit broke, you can get a bargainous £5 ticket to stand at the back of the hall, high up above the ranked seats.  With many performances you can have just as much fun up at the back, and although the action seems far away the excellent acoustics ensure you hear every perfect note.

Back on the Amphitheatre Bar terrace at half-time you also begin to get a sense of how large the Opera House really is.  As a visitor you can quite easily flit between your seat in the main performance hall, known as the Floral Hall, and the bar at interval time, without being aware that below street level is a cavernously deep basement.  And up above the stage are a further four levels!  The ROH's basement stores numerous stage sets and scenery collections in large wire containers, which slide around the floor like a giant puzzle game.  Entire play-worths of scenery wait in the wings of the main stage, alongside racks of costumes.  A rehersal stage, almost as large as the main stage, allows full trial performances for an imagined potential audience.
Backstage are hundreds of carpenters, lighting engineers, designers and scenery-shifters buzzing around like black-clad bees in a hive.  They swarm up above the stage as well as over and behind it.  High above the stage are the flights - the areas from where the lights and backdrops are controlled - narrow, floating platforms covering in snaking cables; furiously hot during a performance due to the hundreds of thousands of pounds-worth of bright lights.

But beyond the stage are scores of offices and store-rooms, unseen and probably unconsidered by the majority of those who go to see the ballerinas leap about the main stage.  There are wardrobes of lace and trimmings, with floors covered in scraps and exquisite costumes on headless mannequins.  On the top floor of the building, not so far from the Amphiteatre Bar, are rehearsal dance studios, where many a dancer has practiced their steps for hours on end.  The studios are walled with mirrors, whilst their floors are excitingly sprung - perfect for bouncing about upon.  For any top ballet dancer in London, nay the UK, the Royal Opera House is a highly desired stage upon which to perform.  Look up in the narrow street that runs alongside the threatre and there is a beautiful faceted bridge high up in the sky, linking the nearby Royal Ballet School to the Royal Opera House; its name is the Bridge of Aspirations.  Within this extraordinary building, where so much is hidden behind the scenes, it is no wonder that so many long to explore its secrets.


  1. Ah, the Royal opera House! One of my favourite places in London! Nothing tops up a cup of champagne on the balcony, during the interval... I just love it. Maybe I was born to be a WAG after all?

  2. Such a gloriously glamorous place, isn't it Muriel? It's classic English elegance.

  3. I think you mean Jennifer, not Sarah.

  4. I did indeed! Thanks for spotting that, Jerry.

  5. I think that the last films about ballet and dancing have had a very important influence in the renaissance of ballet. Since then, I see ballet not as a high culture and elitist world, but as a popular and beautiful art accessible to all. When I saw "Black Swan" for the first time I went to sign up for ballet lessons in a dance studio. I love doing exercises in front of a ballet mirror, with a barre, and I enjoyed it a lot :)


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